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Arizona Republic, Phoenix : Sep. 20 -- Alex Baker zipped into Target after school a couple weeks ago to apply for a part-time cashier job.

The Paradise Valley High School junior figured he'd pick up an application and fill it out at home. When he asked for one at the customer service desk, he was directed to a computer kiosk near the checkout lanes. A bunch of keystrokes later, the application was done and he was being interviewed for the job.

"It was the first one I'd seen," the 16-year-old said of Target's new electronic application system. "I thought it was pretty cool."

Cool and cutting-edge. Target is one of the first major employers to send paper job applications the way of one-armed cash registers and price stickers.

The Minneapolis-based discount retailer started testing the system early this year and in May began rolling it out to all 891 stores across the country.

The store Baker joined, across the street from Paradise Valley Mall, got the system last month. Applicants sit at one of two desks and type information into a black video telephone with a small gray keyboard. It takes from five to 40 minutes depending on the job and the applicant's qualifications.

Home Depot, which has 859 stores, also said adios to paper applications earlier this year, and some video rental chains are testing it.

Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas created perhaps the most extensive paperless system last year to handle the 75,000 applicants for its grand opening. Dealers, waiters, accountants and pit bosses typed or hunted and pecked their way through the application in a 100-computer employment center.

Supporters say there are several things to like about electronic hiring: no paper shuffling, instant screening, quicker processing and hiring and better tracking and sorting of applications.

"I would not go back the other way at all," said Andy Anderson, manager of the Home Depot on Warner Road in Tempe, which stopped handing out paper applications in January. "It makes it (hiring) very simple and very easy for us. It's a major time-saver."

If Anderson has openings in the garden department -- as he will to handle Christmas tree and other holiday sales -- he just punches in "Dept. 25 " and the computer spits out a list of qualified applicants.

Of course, electronic application systems are not for everyone, at least at this stage.

Small businesses generally don't have enough volume to warrant the cost, and companies mainly hiring salaried workers tend to rely more on resumes than standard job applications anyway. (The latter are, however, accept ing applications over the Internet in droves and using computer screening tools to pull from the resume pool.)

Critics are worried about the built-in questions that immediately screen out some applicants and the impersonal nature of a computer-based system. To employers with a lot of workers and a lot of turnover, they're seen as the answer to many hiring headaches.

Arthur Nathan, a longtime human resources executive with Bellagio parent Mirage Resorts, was adamant about creating a new hiring system to fill 9,000 job openings at the luxury resort. He had watched too many applications get lost in the shuffle during the staffing of two other company hotels in Las Vegas.

Add to that the inevitable errors that occurred when information was transferred from the job application to the company's database, and Nathan hit upon an idea: "Why not make the applicants do the data input?"

The company invested about $600,000 in a customized computer system. The 75,000 people who responded to its help-wanted ads were given a scheduled time to stop by the computer center and fill out the application electronically, in English or Spanish. The center was open 12 hours a day, six days a week for five months to gear up for the opening.

It took most applicants 41 minutes to fill out the application -- vs. 40 minutes on paper -- though some took as long as four hours.

"We brought them lunch," Nathan joked.

To make the process a little more personal, each applicant was greeted by name when they signed on and off. At one point in the 165-question application, a grinning character from Treasure Island popped up on the screen to lighten things up.

"The theory is to infuse your process with a little bit of fun," Nathan said. "A little something that they don't expect. Otherwise, it's this mundane, boring kind of process."

For employers worried that the new application systems will intimidate technophobes young and old, Nathan said just 13 applicants were unable to complete the computerized process.

"And I have a workforce that shouldn't be able to sit down at a PC," he said bluntly.

Once the applicants' information is keyed in, hiring managers can track applications online and have them sorted by job, experience, interview ratings and more. Throughout the process at Bellagio, nary an application was lost, Nathan said.

For Target and Home Depot, automating the hiring process was more a factor of the hot job market than a paperwork nightmare -- although no one misses rifling through stacks of applications. (Target still stocks paper applications, but "strongly suggests" people use the kiosks).

Both of the retailers are growing rapidly and have permanent help wanted signs on the door. The ultralow unemployment rate, added to their already high turnover, makes the search a difficult one.

"What we really wanted to do was attract the folks before they went somewhere else," said Pete Scheldt, manager of Target's job kiosk program.

The kiosk helps in two major ways, he said.

First, it's designed to widen the pool of applicants by luring the store's shoppers to apply. Target put the terminals near the checkout lanes to catch eyes that might never see one of its help-wanted ads.

"We're kind of selling the opportunity to work at Target while you're shopping there," Scheldt said.

The chain figures its customers know the Target drill best and would be able to carry it out as employees.

Whether frequent Target shoppers or high school kids looking for spending money, the online system also speeds up the hiring process. As soon as the applicant is done at the kiosk, a formatted copy is sent to a manager on duty. The system even lays out some interview questions based on responses on the application. Qualified applicants are interviewed on the spot.

Before, the application was handed to the customer service desk, which referred it to the human resources department for screening, and then promising candidates were sent to hiring managers.

"By the time we got to a lot of candidates, they had gone down the road, " Scheldt said.

Baker, who worked at a sub shop last year, didn't have time to move on.

"That was the quickest one (interview) I ever had," he said. " Usually it takes like a week or so."

The company that developed Target's system, Decision Point Systems of Beaverton, Ore., says it has other evidence Target is winning out over other employers.

"In a couple of Florida stores we actually found several handfuls of (paper) applications that were left behind," at the kiosk, says founder and chairman Steve Larson.

Home Depot, which was also losing people to other stores before it went high tech, says the new system also allows it to share application information between stores. That means the manager of a Phoenix store can pull up an application filled out in Tempe. The store has a larger pool to choose from, and potential employees save some steps.

"In the past you had to go to every single store in the market," said Mike O'Hagan, vice president of human resources for the chain's Western region.

He doesn't think Home Depot and Target will stand alone for long.

"This will be done by all employers in the near future," O'Hagan said.


Visit Arizona Central, the online edition of The Arizona Republic, on America Online (keyword: Arizona Central) or on the World Wide Web at http://www.azcentral.com

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